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An Open Letter to Henry

Clipart - pointer


You observe that I spoke in an earlier post of something not-this-worldly about us as humans. You want to know more about what I mean.

All definition is founded upon pointing. A dictionary will just send you around in circles if it is complete and you treat it as a closed system. You could learn what all the words in a language mean in relation to each other without learning what any of them really mean in extra-textual terms, unless someone (through illustrations or perhaps the use of an actual index finger) POINTS you to something extra-textual to which one or more of those words alludes.

I could try creating the appropriate definition for the not-this-worldly reality I have in mind. But I am wary of chasing words around in a circle. In this case more than others, I can only point toward the something I have in mind. Point toward it without trying to do anything as rigorous as defining it because, after all, if I could define it with my pragmatic this-worldly intellect, formed to keep my ancestors away from saber-toothed tigers and help them gather nuts and berries, raise their young ... if I could define it with THAT inadequate tool, it wouldn't be the otherworldly wind-at-my-back reality I suspect it is.

Still, the following three pointers come to mind.

1) It is the flash of sudden inspiration, just BEFORE the moment that I become conscious that I've had a flash of inspiration;
2) Related but distinct: it is what the flash of inspiration might have felt like to itself, before the moment when it became MY flash by appropriation;
3) It is how I would experience duration in time, had I never had a reason to measure time arithmetically.

They may sound dramatically cryptic put thus, and I'm not a dramatically-cryptic kind of guy, so I'll expand.

First, notice that this is quite different from the Peircean notion of universals as real-but-not-existent that we discussed last week. I admire Peirce but don't follow him into scholastic realism.

Second, then, I'll observe that the first two of those pointers are inspired by James, the third by Bergson (though it was appropriated by James in A PLURALISTIC UNIVERSE).

In (1) I refer not to the "unconscious" in any Freudian friendly sense, but to the "subliminal" which figures so vastly ion studies of perception. If there is a limit, and if potential perceptions/insights lie sometimes just outside that limit, waiting to stray or to be shaken into the light (a common enough introspective sensation) then it is reasonable to consider this subliminality as a potential back door into our conscious and this-worldly minds of a range of hard-to-pin-down factors. I'll suggest a front door below. But first....

In (2) I pursue that thought further, and connect it with the question "what is consciousness"? My consciousness may just be the consciousness that some moving momentary "I" has appropriated. Other mental facts may be left unappropriated or may have been dropped but may in their own way, to themselves, be conscious mental facts nonetheless. Nagel famously asked: what is it like to be a bat? We might also ask: what is it like to be an unbranded mental fact?

We can ask it, we simply can't answer it: which was, after all, my original point.

In (3) I consider that we murder to dissect. The human race has so long needed its arithmetical calculations about time, has divided it and played fractional changes upon it, that we may in the process have lost the inward sense of what it is.  And lived duration may be a central fact, even the front door of the supernatural into the natural.


  1. Christopher,

    I feel honored (really) to be personally addressed on your blog. What you write here seems to me nonsense, but I have enough respect for your intelligence that I'll say simply that it doesn't make sense to me. I don't believe that that means that I am less intelligent than you, except in the sense that I may lack a sort of intelligence that you have (let's call it "mystical intelligence"). I doubt that you lack my sort of intelligence (let's call it "logical intelligence"), as I believe that you will fully understand the following explanation of why your open letter strikes me as nonsense. Yet, although I believe that you possess logical intelligence, I believe that you set it aside when you allow your mystical intelligence to take over.

    (1) One can have no basis to claim that a flash of inspiration exists before one becomes conscious of a flash of inspiration. This is because, by definition, one is not conscious of its existence. The claim that a flash of inspiration of which one is not conscious exists makes as much sense as the claim that a ham sandwich of which one is unaware exists (or the claim that a god of which one is unaware exists).

    I concede that something may lie just outside the limit of perception. I think of a word that is on the tip of one's tongue. But such a word is not other-worldly.

    (2) A flash of inspiration is not itself a conscious being. Therefore, it cannot feel like anything to itself, or, in fact, feel anything.

    (3) You say that we may have lost the inward sense of what time is. I don't understand what it would mean to have the inward sense of what time is. Although we can be aware of the passage of time, I don't know that we can sense time at all. We can be aware of the passage of time only because we are conscious of something, such as our thoughts, that occurs over time.


  2. It is refreshing to be re-assured that I am a logical being, so soon after the death of Leonard Nimoy. But Spock would want me to be sure that I'm applying my logic to these "mystical" speculations, so I will continue.

    In order not to seem tedious, I'll just say that I am quite certain that there are many ham sandwiches in the world today of whose existence I am quite unaware. That of course doesn't make them otherworldly. They are, for example, the objects within somebody else's kitchen.

    That claim makes perfect sense, does it not? The difference between that and the existence of the flash of inspiration of which I am not yet aware is that you seem to have something invested in denying the reality of the latter. That isn't a difference in the logical coherence of the two possibilities.

    In both cases, there is of course the possibility that I could later appropriate the object of which I am now unaware. I could later today walk into a friend's kitchen and be offered a ham sandwich, the one which even now exists (and will presumably be refrigerated properly in the meantime!) and of whose existence I am now unaware. My body could then appropriate it, making it part of myself. Likewise with my mind's eventual appropriation of a flash of inspiration even now real in some sense. Real but unrealized.

    Now: WHERE is the F of I in the meantime? What is the analog of that kitchen/refrigerator? THAT is the question. And I suspect if you think of the word "on the edge of your tongue" as real, you can think also as THAT reality as a point, and the present center of your consciousness as another point. Draw a line from one of those points to the other, and then continue that line.

    That isn't a matter of suspending logic. That is ostensive definition.

    Live long and prosper.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This morning I return to the subject of the experience of time. There is a qualitative Ur-experience here which is unmeasured and formative. Consider that I pause and look at my wallpaper. It is in an abstract pattern and, having nothing that hurries me along this morning, I just ... look at it. From an external point of view, nothing is happening. I stay in the same location, facing the same direction. There may be a clock in the room, there may not, but it doesn't matter to the experience.

    From the internal point of view, there is something more than stasis even here. There is the duration of the moment. To interpose those quantitative measures for convenience of expression here: my experience of the fifth second of this deliberation will be subtly different from my experience of the tenth or fifteenth second. That gathering-snowball effect of the mind is the pure duration.

    And that experience is another pointer to the usually unplumbed depths of the human spirit. For in what space is this snowball gathering? It gathers in time, not in space.


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